Sarath Fonseka’s dramatic comeback via the polls

3 April 2014 04:16 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Ever since he retired from the Army and decided on a political career, former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka has never been away from the limelight. He hit the headlines once again this week as the Western and Southern provinces went to the polls last Saturday.

Fonseka’s Democratic Party (DP) stunned political observers with a creditable showing at the election, pushing the long established Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) into fourth position in the country’s most populous region, the Western province. The DP performed creditably in the South too.

In the Western province, the DP garnered nearly eight per cent of the vote, two per cent more than the long established JVP. In the Gampaha district, thought to be the pocket borough of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), it was as high as nine per cent.

In the South too, the DP’s performance was noteworthy. Although it polled only a little more than three per cent of the vote in the Hambantota district, it claimed nine per cent of the vote in Galle. In Fonseka’s hometown electorate of Ambalangoda, the DP polled 16 per cent of the vote.

Fonseka ignited further controversy when he cast his vote at a polling station in Batakeththara in Piliyandala. It was believed that he had lost his civic rights when he was sentenced to three years imprisonment by the Colombo High Court in November 2011 in the infamous ‘White Flag’ case.

“The Elections Commissioner and the Elections Department have accepted today that constitutionally, my civic rights are intact. Through this I have shown the people of this country who appreciate democracy that my civic rights have not been withdrawn,” Fonseka said after casting his vote.

It is a move that is bound to generate more debate. That is because he now has the potential to become a candidate at both general and presidential elections and given the commendable performances of the DP at the polls, he could become a crucial factor in the electoral equation.

The DP cites Section 89 (d) of the Constitution, which states that a person who is serving a period of imprisonment of more than six months is disqualified from being an elector. This also states that if such a person “is granted a free pardon such disqualification shall cease” from the date of the pardon.

Some analysts argue that Fonseka was allowed to cast his vote only because the polling agents at that particular polling station were taken unawares when he presented himself to vote and therefore did not raise any objections. The ‘status quo’ will be soon restored, they say.

There has been no official response from either the government or the Commissioner of Elections regarding this issue and this has even led to speculation that the government would not place obstacles against Fonseka contesting future elections as he has the potential to split the opposition vote.
This is the latest in a series of issues that Fonseka, once described as the “best Army Commander in the world” who led the Sri Lanka Army during its final and decisive assault against the LTTE has to contend with.

The 63-year-old Gardihewa Sarath Chandralal Fonseka hails from Ambalangoda and schooled at Dharmasoka Vidyalaya and later at Ananda College in Colombo. He joined the Army as a school leaver and rose through its ranks.

Fonseka’s career coincided with the war against the LTTE. He led a series of military attacks against the Tigers, relieving the siege on Elephant Pass in 1991 and regaining the control of Jaffna in 1995 being significant among them. By 2005, he had become the Chief of Staff of the Sri Lanka Army.

That was the time when Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President of Sri Lanka. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a year junior to Fonseka in the military, was appointed as Defence Secretary. Rajapaksa handpicked Fonseka for the job of Army Commander with the objective of defeating the LTTE.

With unqualified political backing from the Rajapaksa government, Fonseka set about the task of destroying the LTTE. His skills were obviously recognised by the Tigers; they staged an assassination attempt on him in April 2006. Fonseka was seriously injured but survived.

This strengthened Fonseka’s resolve to annihilate the LTTE. That happened some three years later in 2009. Then, Fonseka expressed a desire to remain as Army Commander for the Army’s diamond jubilee celebrations. He was denied that honour and ‘kicked upstairs’ as Chief of Defence Staff.

Irked by this, Fonseka submitted his resignation and announced his candidature for the presidency. Fonseka rallied the principal opposition parties -- the United National Party (UNP), the JVP, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and even the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

But it was not to be; he secured only 40 per cent of the vote, conceding to the incumbent President a 1.9 million vote majority at the 2010 polls. Since then, Fonseka has been tried over several charges both in military and civil courts and found guilty. He served time in jail and was the Welikada prison’s most celebrated prisoner.
In May 2012, President Rajapaksa pardoned Fonseka leading to his release from prison following months of negotiations. Nevertheless, the pardon has not restored Fonseka’s military rank or pension while his civic rights remain a contentious issue though he was allowed to cast his vote on Saturday.
This will remain a topic of discussion until a final determination is made. In the event that an attempt is made now to enforce civic disabilities, the matter may end in another legal tussle to which Fonseka is no stranger.

Even more significant for Fonseka is the outstanding performance of his Democratic Party. It remains to be seen whether this is merely a ‘protest’ vote against the UPFA. While the UNP rife with internal dissent gives Fonseka much bargaining power with the rest of the opposition.

There it is still a long road ahead for Fonseka and the Democratic Party and Fonseka himself said as much after analysing the performance of his party after the polls. But for the man who finished a thirty-year-war, this would be another challenge his is bound to relish.
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